Super Savant: Devon Baur
by Erica Anderson·
Devon Baur (she/her) is our newest Super Savant, and I can't wait for you to know a little bit of her story. As a PhD candidate at UCLA, Devon brings a fresh perspective to the world of olfaction and how, in an increasingly digital world, it influences our perceptions of one another.
Enjoy this short Q&A with her. As it did for me, I hope reading it invites you to think about your sense of smell in a new way.
Erica Anderson (they/them): Hi Devon! You're currently getting your PhD at UCLA on the influence of smell in tech, storytelling and culture. What led you to this area of study?
Devon Baur: I was a producer on a multisensory VR project (Tree VR) and I had the privilege of putting thousands of people through the VR experience with my own hands. Anecdotally, I started to notice that, out of all of the multi-sensory elements that we had (wind, heat, vibrations etc.) smell seemed to have the strongest emotional effect. I started to discuss this with Dr. Emanuela Maggioni (she designed the scent devices we used, and has since become my mentor) and she introduced me to the science of scent. I had an opportunity to run studies as a researcher-in-residence at Stanford and was blown away by how much influence scent had in VR. The real alchemy started when I started to research not just the scientific studies, but also the cultural biases and implications. Ultimately, once I started to learn about the processing of smelling, I felt like it reframed the world for me... since then I have been hooked!
EA: One of the things you talked about was how our sense of smell compares to our sight. How many scent notes does our nose have the capacity to experience, compared to colors we can see with our eyes?
DB: Latest estimates suggest that our eyes have the capacity to see about 7.5 million colors, while our noses have the potential to smell up to a trillion scents. That is an incredible about of nuance and variance, and it means there is always, always something new to discover.
EA: Our sense of smell is registered in the same part of the brain as emotion and memory – which means smelling something from our childhood can instantly take us back to that time and place. But can we create new scent memories, and if so, how?
DB: Each time you smell a new scent, your brain binds the experience (or the memory) with the scent. This allows you to recall the scent later and identify whether the odor is safe or threatening. We encounter a lot of scents for the first time in our childhood, so many scents will bring us back to that time period. However a new scent can form a new scent memory. Also, a strong or relevant memory might also overpower the original "smell print". For example, the scent of cumin used to remind me of being in university (because that was the only spice I had and I literally used it on everything), but recently I spilled some cumin oil in my car which has been difficult to get out. Now cumin reminds me of my car, and the summer of 2021. That has been an entirely new experience with the smell that was so significant, it reframed and re-contextualized the original scent for me. It is possible for us to shift these memories, so the work TNS does of reframing scents can be very powerful.
EA: Can you explain, at a high level, how smell might shape our perception of the world –– and why it’s important to learn about?
DB: We often think of scent as instinctual -- however, scent preferences are all taught to us. How you categorize a scent (as dangerous or safe, or familiar or unfamiliar) is a process that is taught to you, through both your individual life experiences and also the cultures you were raised in. When this fact is overlooked, people begin to think that differences in scents or scent preferences is not a cultural bi-product, but rather an innate difference (which is a dangerous assumption). As a consequence, scent is often used to police other bodies. An obvious example is through food. There are countless stories of people calling foreign cooking "smelly" (from school lunches to neighboring apartments). Through this example it is clear how smell is weaponized against people to label them as "other" and keep them excluded from the "in" group. I love how TNS uses candles as a positive way to reframe how people approach food scents, like the polarizing "dill" in heatwave. We all have the potential to expand our noses and build new neural pathways, and recognize where we are carrying our own cultural or personal biases.
EA: What’s one thing you hope scent designers and olfactory experts take into consideration as they develop future fragrances?DB: I really love fragrance designers that have a clear story around the scent, because that is what gives it context. That helps to frame and capture the scent for the smeller far more the list of ingredients. Again, I'm fan-girling but I think TNS is so great at capturing the whole mood of the scent, which might help people approach fragrance notes they might have resisted before.
EA: Finally, what’s your favorite TNS scent and why?
DB: It's impossible to pick a favorite, but I do use different scents for different activities. The Dropout is my favorite for studying, Androgyne is my favorite for hosting guests and having a party, and The Witching Hour is my new favorite for cozying up with a film on a spooky overcast night.